One of the most tiresome and annoying narratives that has been around the NBA over the past few seasons and that has carried into the 2013 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs is the relentless dissection of LeBron James. From the pre-game shoot-around to the post-game interview, everything that LeBron does is analyzed, judged and criticized to an absurd degree, even for the most high-profile basketball player on the planet.
Anyone who keeps up with basketball and knows someone who doesn’t think highly of James has heard all of the criticisms of him. “He doesn’t have the killer-instinct like Michael (Jordan) or Kobe (Bryant).” “He doesn’t have the clutch gene. He’ll shrink in the big moments.” The list of detractions could go on and on.
In last year’s playoffs, though, those criticisms became trite and forced as James single-handedly took over the Eastern Conference Finals and didn’t let up until he was joyously hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy. He continued that level of domination throughout the 2012-2013 regular season as well. Any criticisms of James over that time were, quite frankly, trivial and somewhat not valid.
With Game 4 of this year’s NBA Finals looming on Thursday night, the criticisms of James are once again rampant and widespread. However, this is a different situation than it has been over the past year; as of right now, James deserves all of the criticism that he’s receiving.
Through the first three games of the series, James is playing arguably the worst offensive series of his life. He’s averaging a solid 12.3 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.7 steals and one block per game, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The fact that he’s averaging only 16.7 points per game on just 38.9 percent shooting and 23.1 percent three-point shooting is the most troubling part of how James has played in this series.
An enormous amount of credit goes to the Spurs and how they’re defending him. Kawhi Leonard has done a fantastic job with quickness and positioning when defending James. The Spurs as a whole have also not allowed James to get comfortable by continually throwing different looks at him throughout the series. They’ve also baited James into making poor decisions.
Through the first three games in this series, James has taken 15 shots in the restricted area, where he’s the most efficient and successful because of his strength and athleticism. However, the Spurs have funneled him away from the rim and forced him into taking 17 mid-range jumpers in this series, with James making only four of those shots.
The fact that the Spurs have deterred James away from getting into the rim has obviously frustrated him and affected the way he’s playing. There was a play in Tuesday night’s Game 3 where Tiago Splitter was matched up one-on-one with James with the lane relatively clear. Instead of attacking like he should, James dribbled for 10 seconds and then pulled up for a three. Though he was open, that’s exactly the shot San Antonio wants James to be taking.
It’s decisions like that play with Splitter why James deserves all of the criticism coming his way in regards to this series. He’s not playing with the same aggressiveness that he needs to, and he’s not getting into the paint to create plays, which is evidenced by the fact that he’s taken just six free throws in the entire series. He’s allowing the Spurs to pressure him into playing how they want him to.
Part of the reason James has been so limited in this series is the fact that Dwyane Wade has been a shell of himself in this series because of his knee injury. Without Wade being a legitimate threat, it allows the Spurs’ defense to focus more of their energy and attention on James, which has obviously frustrated him.
The Heat are looking to avoid going down 3-1 in the series, with one game still left to play in San Antonio. In essence, Game 4 is a must-win for Miami. Erik Spoelstra will likely make some key adjustments on offense to try and get James more active and positive touches, but that’s not going to cure everything. James has to play his game and not be forced to doing what San Antonio wants him to do. If he doesn’t do so, the Heat will likely fail; and the criticisms of James will be undoubtedly warranted.